The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft. See a live performance on SNL.
The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.
To make a chord, start on any scale degree, then skip two degrees clockwise, and then skip another two, and so on. To make C minor, you start on C, then jump to E-flat, and then to G. To make E-flat major, you start on E-flat, then jump to G, and then to B-flat. And to make A-flat major, you start on A-flat, then jump to C, and then to E-flat. Simple enough so far.
The C natural minor scale shares its seven notes with the E-flat major scale:
All we’ve really done here is rotate the circle three slots counterclockwise. All the relationships stay the same, and you can form the same chords in the same way. The two scales are so closely related that if you noodle around on C natural minor long enough, it starts just sounding like E-flat major. Try it!
The last of the four chords in “Ultralight Beam” is G7, and to make it, we need a note that isn’t in C natural minor (or E-flat major): the leading tone, B natural. If you take C natural minor and replace B-flat with B natural, you get a new scale: C harmonic minor.
If you make a chord starting on G from C natural minor, you get G minor (G, B-flat, D). The chord sounds fine, and you could use it with the other three above without offending anyone. But if you make the same chord using C harmonic minor, you get G major (G, B, D). This is a much more dramatic and exciting sound. If you add one more chord degree, you get G7 (G, B, D, F), known as the dominant chord in C minor. In the diagram below, the G7 chord is in blue, and C minor is in green.
Feel how much more intensely that B natural pulls to C than B-flat did? That’s what gives the song its drama, and what puts it unambivalently in C minor rather than E-flat major.
“Ultralight Beam” has a nice chord progression, but that isn’t its most distinctive feature. The thing that jumps out most immediately is the unusual beat. Nearly all hip-hop is in 4/4 time, where each measure is subdivided into four beats, and each of those four beats is subdivided into four sixteenth notes. “Ultralight Beam” uses 12/8 time, which was prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century, but is a rarity now. Each measure still has four beats in it, but these beats are subdivided into three beats rather than four.
The track states this rhythm very obliquely. The drum track is comprised almost entirely of silence. The vocals and other instruments skip lightly around the beat. Chance The Rapper’s verse in particular pulls against the meter in all kinds of complex ways.
The song’s structure is unusual too, a wide departure from the standard “verse-hook-verse-hook”.
The intro is twelve bars long, four bars of ambient voices, and eight bars over the chord progression. The song proper begins with just the first half of the chorus (known in hip-hop circles as the hook.) Kanye has a sixteen bar verse, followed by the first full chorus. Kelly Price gets the next sixteen bar verse. So far, so typical. But then, where you expect the next chorus, Chance The Rapper does his ecstatic forty bar verse. Next is what feels like the last chorus, but that’s followed by Kirk Franklin’s eight bar verse, and then an eight bar outtro with just the choir singing haunting single words. It’s strange, but it works.